Advocating Through Friendship

Special Olympics youth and athlete leaders were recently featured in a new book called Stand Up! 75 Young Activists who Rock the World and How You Can Too from John Schlimm. You can read all about the full book here, but we also wanted to share some of the amazing Special Olympics stories featured in the book. Stay tuned over the next few weeks to read these inspiring stories of youth changing the world through Special Olympics. And if you’re interested, you can purchase Stand Up! online.

Our first amazing story comes from youth leaders Danielle Liebl and Kaitlyn Smith… a story of true friendship! This is just a small preview, so make sure to check out the book for the full story! 

Kaitlyn & DanielleThe summer of 2010 is a summer that will always be remembered by the both of us. It was a summer of growth, new beginnings and cherished memories, but most importantly, it was the summer our lives intersected for the first time. That summer, Special Olympics hosted the 2010 National Youth Activation Summit in Omaha, Nebraska which both of us attended.

Danielle was an intern while Kaitlyn participated as a Unified Partner with her friend Kathleen. We briefly met at the summit when Danielle went up to Kaitlyn’s Partner, Kathleen, to wish her a happy birthday. Little did we know that we had each just met a lifelong friend. Later that year, Kaitlyn joined Special Olympics’ National Youth Activation Committee, in which Danielle was already a member. At our first meeting in Washington, D.C., we instantly bonded over our uncontrollable laughter, similar sarcasm and sense of humor.

Our friendship was growing, and our friendship meant the world to the both of us. The comfort to be ourselves when we were around each other was proof that we were perfect friends. We never felt compelled to try to impress anyone or be anything we weren’t. There was comfort in having conversations about anything, from schoolwork to philosophy.

There was one conversation in particular that has stuck with both of us and has really helped define our friendship. While in Florida attending a Special Olympics marketing and communications meeting, we found ourselves awake at one o’clock in the morning discussing our friendship and the impact it has had. After a lengthy conversation, we came to the realization that not once in our friendship had we ever looked at one another as an “athlete” or a “Partner.” That simply did not matter.

Over time, we came to realize that the friendship we had wasn’t just a normal friendship—it was something much more special. We both had the same ambitions in Special Olympics, similar personalities and we shared a goal to change the world. We were both on the same path, and it didn’t take long for us to realize that our friendship would help us support and guide each other in our work for this very special organization.

We realized that our friendship was not one that average youth got to experience very often. It was one that gave us hope on so many levels; not only did it give us hope in our everyday lives, but it also gave us hope for the future. Throughout our friendship, we realized that we wanted nothing more than for all youth to have the friendship that we have—one where friends don’t see the limits of each other, but rather where they see each other’s full potential.

We wanted to set an example for those around us, and Special Olympics gave us the perfect way to do it. When we first started our advocacy work, we barely realized we were doing it. We did nothing more than make our perfectly normal friendship visible to others.

In the beginning, we didn’t realize the impact it was having on others until the staff at Special Olympics brought it to our attention. Before we knew it, we were being asked to talk about our unique friendship to others in the Special Olympics community, and then to the broader community. We took on a new leadership role as we were now being leaders who set an example for a new way of thinking and living. We were the examples of how to live a unified life. Through our unified friendship that was developed out of Special Olympics, we discovered one of the most powerful ways of activism. Advocacy does not need to be an out-loud verbal expression that you proclaim to a crowd of people. Rather, we discovered that true advocates are the ones who pave a path to a way of life that is often at first unknown or mysterious to others, but ultimately leads to an incredible and fulfilling life. For us, something as simple as our friendship led us to pave this path on which we hope more youth will travel.

* Editor’s note: if you liked this story, take a look at the Discussion Guide that provides great questions to generate discussion in the classroom around this story.

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Inclusive Youth Leadership in Action – Share, Inspire and Activate!

During the week of September 2nd to September 5th 2013, Special Olympics Project UNIFY® youth leaders shared their experiences, insights and strategies with students, educators, parents and the community using social media. Student Voice, a recent initiative formed to activate the student voice through building community and opportunity, provided Special Olympics the opportunity to educate their supporters about the power of our work. Student Voice hosted a Twitter Chat and a Google+ Hangout on the topic of Special Olympics Project UNIFY.

Youth Leaders participated as panelists on a Google+ Hangout and decided to co-create a Memory Sheet to reflect on the experience. Each leader shared his or her Special Olympics sports involvement, three insights from the conversation and a quote of wisdom for us to consider!

Connor MooreConnor

I participate in Track and Field (Coach), Long Distance Running (Coach/Mentor), and Bowling (Unified Partner).

  • Unexpected obstacles often offer the opportunity to improve the end result
  • An inclusive discussion about inclusive leadership can produce amazing results
  • Effective communication is a relatable message – whether that be through a story or a joke.

Without inclusive youth leadership, a movement isn’t moving anywhere soon.” – Connor Moore, Special Olympics Delaware

048

Kabir Robinson

I play unified soccer.

  • I like the way partners on the YAC [Youth Activation Committee] help each other.
  • I like the way Lindsey and Erin work together.
  • I like it that Erin draws pictures to express her feelings in public.

I love public speaker because I want to see new people who don’t know about Unified Sports.” – Kabir Robinson, Special Olympics Washington 

Karina Vargas-Silva

I participate in basketball, and Unified soccer.Karina

  • I believe that we all have something to give, whether it’s our time, our affection, or our thoughts, and I encourage you all to remember to give.
  • We can all learn from each other despite our abilities or disabilities, we all have something that we can share with someone else.
  • Teamwork is very helpful, and sometimes you can achieve more when you work together.

The only way you can truly impact someone’s life is by opening up and letting them impact yours.” – Karina Vargas-Silva, Special Olympics Washington

Erin

Erin Meyer

I participate in Soccer and Track.

  • Inclusive youth leaders work hard and work together.
  • Inclusive youth leaders do good things.
  • Inclusive youth leaders make new friends.

Project UNIFY is fun because you work with more people.” – Erin Meyer, Special Olympics New Jersey

Lindsey Conlan

I am a volunteer at track and field and soccer events.

  • IMG_1380It is imperative that we allot time and provide opportunities for everyone to share their opinions and ideas in their own ways so that all voices can be heard.
  • Youth are just as powerful as adults! With the right amount of support from administration, youth can have a huge impact on their peers.
  • Project UNIFY should be used as a means to create lasting friendships that extend past the playing field.

A call to action: If you have the opportunity to volunteer at a Special Olympics event, take it one step further. Keep in touch with at least one athlete via social media, going out to eat, or simply cheering for that athlete at their next competition. This type of action will continue to promote the core idea of Project Unify after the games are over.” – Lindsey Conlan, Special Olympics New Jersey

Kelsey Foster

I participate in Unified Basketball and I help train the Athletes for all the competitions.

  • 230x300_KelseyFosterWhole school inclusion makes everyone feel valued.
  • Everyone has a talent that can be used to implicate whole school inclusion.
  • End-the-R-Word Campaigns are great ways to get everyone involved.

Being a part of Project UNIFY is the best thing in the world. It makes you feel appreciated and valued, you meet wonderful friends, and it gives you  the chance to make a positive difference in the world.” – Kelsey Foster, Special Olympics South Carolina. 

We encourage you to learn more from these youth leaders by watching the Google+ Hangout!

The Blessing of Friendship

For Special Olympics athlete and National Youth Activation Committee member Jared Niemeyer, friendship is a blessing that he’ll never take for granted. Read his inspiring blog to see why. 

Friends are people who care about you, respect you, really listen to you, are thoughtful and do nice things because they want to see you smile, but most of all – you are important to them because you matter!  I have some really great friends!

As a Special Olympic athlete I have a lot of friends with intellectual or developmental disabilities.  We love doing things together; we care about what happens to each other, we encourage each other and look out for each other.  We are friends and enjoy doing things together! Special Olympics has given us the opportunity to experience a lot that some of us would never have had the chance to do.  We also play Unified Sports, so many of our teammates are also Unified partners and don’t have disabilities; we are friends and have a lot of fun working and playing together.

Going to a public school that promotes inclusive education also allows you to be friends with all students. We get to know one another well; we work and study together and enjoy being together every day. Sometimes you have to make your own way; be friendly so others learn who you are and what you can do. Usually, I make friends with others easily and am a great friend. One year during a Special Olympic area event the Varsity and Junior Varsity baseball team came to cheer me on!!!! They had made signs because they wanted to help me just like I help them as the baseball manager!! It was awesome to have my friends there cheering me on!

I graduated from high school in 2011 and work in our community.  I even moved into a place of my own with a friend of mine; Max and I graduated from high school together and planned to live independently within 2 years.  Our parents helped us figure out how we could afford living on our own, helped find a duplex in a residential neighborhood, and taught us how to manage every day. The day we moved in one of my friends from school stopped by to welcome us to the neighborhood!  He wanted to make sure we knew how to reach him if we needed anything or just wanted to talk.  He’s a great friend and we have Bible Study regularly – he graduates in May and will be going to West Point next fall. Another friend’s parents live around the corner and I can reach them anytime – his dad is a police officer and we’ve done the Torch Run together! I’ve learned so much about being a good friend because of the experiences and opportunities I’ve had.

Special Olympics isn’t just about amazing people – it’s about being all you can be and doing all you can! Opportunities teach you a lot – I even have an entire YAC (Youth Activation Committee) family because of Special Olympics Project UNIFY.

A lot of my friends don’t have disabilities; I’m so grateful that they look at me and see who I am, not just seeing that I am someone with a disability. I have value to my friends – they care and truly listen. They tell me that I’ve taught them about respect and thoughtfulness.

I’m blessed to have the friends I do!

Engaging Others

Post submitted by Anderson Williams, Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Tennessee College Access and Success Network. In addition to regional, national, and international training and consulting work, Williams co-authored “The Core Principles for Engaging Young People in Community Change” and “Youth Organizing for Educational Change” with the Forum for Youth Investment.

Part of the confusion and pressure of being a middle and high school student is not just that relatively new feeling of “otherness” (i.e. being different) but that this feeling charges our emotional and cognitive development in ways that can last a lifetime. These are truly formative years. Starting in our teens and carrying through the rest of our lives, we develop habits in response to our “otherness” in which we:

  1. conform and adapt so that we are included (eliminate otherness),
  2. isolate and look for proxies for positive social relationships (neutralize otherness), or
  3. develop the confidence to be who we are regardless of what others think (celebrate otherness)

The reality is that during the teenage years we move in and out of all of these responses quite frequently and without notice. This is kind of what defines the teenage years. It’s why adults think teens are weird! It is also what makes the teenage years such a critical time for inclusion and genuine engagement.

But, for many students with physical and intellectual disabilities, the option of “conforming” feels impossible in a traditional sense. They are so strongly considered “other” by peers and adults that the opportunity to just become one of the group is out of their hands. Similarly, they are often structurally isolated – both socially and physically – living parallel lives to their same-aged peers in their own wing of the school, with their own teachers, classrooms, and school and community activities.  And, as long as this is the case, as long as they are the “others”, inclusion and full engagement are impossibilities for everyone.

The fact is that every teen, every one of us actually, is “other”.

We are all different and we all need to have a say in our own development and the paths we choose. When otherness is allowed the space to be celebrated, inclusion, rather than isolation, becomes the norm. When everyone is understood as other then otherness as we know it no longer exists. And, when we engage others, we all engage our best selves.

‘BULLY’ Brings Media Attention to Bullying & School Climate

On March 30, the documentary BULLY opened in select theaters in New York and L.A (the film will be released throughout the U.S. and Canada in April). The film, directed by Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch (distributed by the Weinstein Company), is garnering tremendous media attention and has already begun to serve as a catalyst for conversation on the topic of bullying.

Over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation. BULLY brings human scale to this startling statistic, offering an intimate, unflinching look at how bullying has touched five kids and their families.

BULLY is a character-driven documentary. At its heart are those with huge stakes in this issue whose stories each represent a different facet of America’s bullying crisis. Filmed over the course of the 2009/2010 school year, BULLY opens a window onto the pained and often endangered lives of bullied kids, revealing a problem that transcends geographic, racial, ethnic and economic borders. It documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors that defy “kids will be kids” clichés, and it captures a growing movement among parents and youths to change how bullying is handled in schools, in communities and in society as a whole.

While Special Olympics is not an official partner, nor direct endorser, of this film, we applaud the efforts of those who seek to create a safer, more accepting and respectful world for all.

Bullying is an issue closely connected to our movement of acceptance and inclusion that has been going on for the past 44 years at Special Olympics.

60% of students with special needs reporting being bullied compared to 25% of general education students.

Statistics like this demonstrate the severity of this issue for the specific population of students with disabilities. In March, the White House hosted a conference on bullying prevention. Tim Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics, attended the event, representing the voice of those with intellectual disabilities and the mindset that it was time for a change.

Through efforts such as Spread the Word to End the Word, Project UNIFY® and Unified Sports®, Special Olympics has actively worked with youth, schools, educators, families and the communities to create climates of inclusion, respect and understanding. These initiatives encourage engagement, character-building and positive youth leadership, and are preventive mechanisms to discourage stigmatizing and abusive language and behavior.

The power of Unified Sports (where students with and without intellectual disabilities compete together as teammates) has extended beyond the playing field. In a 2011 survey, of Special Olympics Maryland high school Unified Partners who observed their teammates with disabilities being bullied or teased, 91% reported standing up for them! Through Unified Sports, we are takings steps towards more positive and inclusive school environments as young people establish friendships and recognize the value of ALL students!

As you begin discussing the topic of bullying in the classroom or with your friends, parents, children or students, we wanted to provide a collection of resources that will help as you begin working towards real change in school climate:

You can also join our conversations here on our blog or through Special Olympics and Project UNIFY social channels:

The Road to Respect

Recycle, race, respect, rejoice, relax, reject…

The list of “r-words” could go on forever, but in the eyes of any person associated with Special Olympics, there is one “r-word” that is not quite like the rest. This R-word alone has the power to take someone from happy to sad in a matter of seconds, the power to hurt, discriminate and stereotype. This R-word has the power to change lives.

This R-word is the word “retard/retarded.”

To a lot of people, March 7, 2012 felt like a normal Wednesday, but anyone in the Special Olympics family knows it was so much more than just a normal day. It was a day to promote acceptance, inclusion and respect for individuals with intellectual disabilities and spread awareness about everything our Special Olympics athletes can achieve in this world.

It was the Spread the Word to End the Word day!

The “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign was started in 2009 by two youth, and is now celebrated across the world. Starting as a campaign to eliminate the use of the R-word, the campaign has grown into so much more, and is changing the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities.

I have hosted and observed campaigns for the last three years. Over those three years, the campaign and the responses towards our efforts have changed so much!

The first year the campaign was done, it is safe to say that there was a lot of resistance. Many people argued that it was their “freedom of speech” to use any word that they wanted, and that they weren’t directing it at those with disabilities. The second year gained more attention and positive responses, but this year was the most amazing year yet! This year, we made a huge leap towards social acceptance for all. Although I only got to attend two R-word campaigns this year, the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign was everywhere!

When I logged onto my Facebook on Wednesday, the amount of videos, blogs, stories, and posts about the campaign was amazing! I was receiving blast emails and texts all day, but things people were saying about the campaign wasn’t what was had been said in the past; they were no longer the normal “do not use the r-word,” but rather “individuals with intellectual disabilities are just like you and me. They deserve the same respect that everyone else does, so please think before you speak.”

When we ask people to sign the pledge to stop using the R-word, we aren’t simply asking people to not use a word, we are asking people to change their mind-sets. We are asking them to accept differences, embrace those with disabilities, and unite in a world of social acceptance.

This year, the real meaning behind the campaign was finally understood. With over 286,000 pledges so far, this campaign has come a long way, but still has a long way to go. The road to respect might not be an easy road, but with all of the amazing strength from the athletes, support from their families, and guidance from volunteers, as a family of Special Olympics, we WILL make it there!

The Magic of Inclusion

Walking into a class and ignoring differences between students is not the perfect world.

The perfect world is walking into a class where you can see all sorts of differences, yet everyone is interacting with each other and having fun. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s magic.

I am an elementary education major and this past semester I was placed in a second grade classroom where I was able to teach once a week. The first day I walked into the classroom I could feel the magic in the air. The class was full of diverse students – along with the typical students, there were students who were gifted and students with learning disabilities, emotional disabilities, and autism. But the students didn’t talk about their different abilities and they didn’t talk about how they were different from each other. But there was definitely a lot of talking. The students were constantly talking about what they were learning and what was going on in their lives. They weren’t judging each other for their differences or asking questions about why they acted differently.

They were just being kids.

But beyond being kids, they were true friends. All of the students had a strong bond that will hopefully last for years to come.

I remember walking around during one class while the students worked on a graphing assignment. When I walked past the student with autism, who I helped frequently, I realized that he didn’t need my help that day. His classmate sitting next to him was talking him through the steps of the assignment. He wasn’t told to do this; he wasn’t put next to this student to lend him help when needed; he wasn’t helping him because he felt sorry for him; he was simply helping out his friend. Abracadabra.

But we need to realize that this magic doesn’t just happen…it takes a magician – the teacher – to put it all together and make the audience – the students – believe in the magic.

Because of their teacher, these students were allowed to see the magic of inclusion in the classroom. But this magic wasn’t just a trick – it was real.

That was inclusion at its best.